God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Who is the Wonderful Counselor?

Polycarp asks on the About page how “wonderful, counselor” of Isaiah 9:5 (9:6) should be translated.

It’s a difficult question with a longer than usual answer. But here goes.

As with “Prince of Peace,” we assume that the title “wonderful, counselor” — whatever it means — describes God after whom the child in Isaiah 9 is named, not the child himself. But translating the two-word combination is tricky.

Wonderful

The word for “wonderful” here is the noun peleh, commonly translated “wonder” or “miracle.”

As I point out here, one way of looking at things holds that there were no miracles in the Bible, because miracles are by definition extra-scientific, and there was no science in the Bible. So many people prefer “wonder” for peleh.

A peleh is normally something that is done, as, for example, in Exodus 15:11 (“Who is like you, Adonai … doing peleh!”) or Psalm 77:15 (“You are God who does peleh.”) We also note that the word is usually singular, as though it’s a collective noun. (It usually ends up as the plural terata in the LXX, a word that encompasses not just peleh but other “signs” as well.)

When we see peleh used here as what God is — rather than what God does — the word stands out, and I think that the attempt to turn “wonder” into “wonderful” through translation is probably misguided.

If peleh is indeed a collective noun in Hebrew but not in English, the right translation may be “wonders.”

On the other hand, the whole notion of giving people names that describe the deity after whom they are named is so foreign to most English speakers that whatever we do will end up sounding a little odd, so maybe we may as well stick with “wonder” here.

Counselor

The Hebrew for “counselor” is yo’eitz. The word is used frequently enough in parallel with other words and phrases that we know that a yo’eitz is wise (e.g., Isaiah 3:3), that a yo’etiz can consult to a king (e.g., 1 Kings 12:6), and that kings can have more than one (2 Chronicles 22:4).

We also see it used in parallel with such words as “prophet” (navi) in Isaiah 29:10 and “judge” (shofet) in Isaiah 1:26. Accordingly, it looks like “adviser” or “counselor” is a pretty good bet, but the emphasis of the Hebrew word seems to be on the qualities of what the person is, not what the person does.

The difference is sometimes hard to appreciate, but for an example we can compare “attorney” (what a person is) and “litigator” (what a person does), though the analogy isn’t perfect.

Wonder-Counselor

So what are the words doing together?

Isaiah 9 is not the only place we find what looks like a combination of peleh and yo’eitz. We see it in Isaiah 25 and Isaiah 28, too.

Isaiah 25 is a self-contained text that describes God’s victory over evil. The end of the first verse proclaims that God “does/did peleh,” adding in parallel “eitzot from afar,” (presumably “from a long time ago”) — the word eitzot is the plural noun connected with the verb yo’eitz.

It’s not clear if this passage is meant to reflect actual history or not, but either way, the combination of peleh and a word related to “counselor” is interesting and confusing at the same time. How is peleh like eitzot? Why are they in parallel? And does the odd juxtaposition of the two concepts here connect to Isaiah 9?

Isaiah 28 uses a verbal form of peleh in connection with the singular of eitzot. The verb, hiphli, is a common modal verb, sometimes representing “to do wonderfully,” and sometimes (as in Numbers 6:2) conveying a broader meaning. In Isaiah 28, it’s how God is/does eitzah, “counsel.”

And again, it’s not clear if this phrase is related to Isaiah 9.

But it does seem clear that, at least in these two passages, “counselor” isn’t quite right. Who is there for God to counsel? Rather — and this accords with what we saw before — it looks like the word focuses on not on what the counselor does (that is, counsel) but rather what the counselor is (smart? wise? something else?).

Isaiah 9

All of this brings us back to Isaiah 9, and the phrase peleh yo’eitz. Both of these words seem to describe what God is (though for peleh this is an atypical usage), but beyond that we have more questions than answers.

The biggest question is whether these are two concepts or whether — as translations commonly indicate — peleh modifies yo’eitz. And even here Hebrew grammar helps us only a little. Normally when two nouns appear side by side in Hebrew, it’s the second that modifies the first, not the other way around. So melech Shin’ar, just for instance, is a king of a place, not a kingly place. So peleh yo’etz could be a counselor-like wonder.

But some words, because of their semantics, allow both possibilities. And “wonder” is such a word. So even though the Hebrew could mean “counselor-like wonder” (if the two words were connected), it could also mean “a wonder of a counselor,” which is to say, basically, a wonderful counselor.

But because the words for “wonder” and “counselor” appear in parallel elsewhere, I think that they are meant to reinforce each other, not modify one another.

So “wonderful counselor” certainly doesn’t do the trick of conveying the Hebrew words. But neither does “wonder, counselor,” though it comes closer. I think “wonder” is okay. But the problem with “counselor” is that — at least to me — it indicates actual counseling, whereas the Hebrew yo’eitz, as we saw, reflects certain innate qualities, not actions.

Beyond this it’s hard to know what nuance to try to capture in translation. “Wonder, Genius” might be the point, or, “Wonder, Knower,” though I suspect that there’s a better pair of English words lurking somewhere.

Any ideas?

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February 16, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , | 11 Comments

Who is the Prince of Peace?

Two questions from the About page ask about Isaiah 9:5 (9:6), “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (NRSV).

The final phrase of this child’s name (“Prince of Peace”) are probably the most famous, so we’ll start there.

The Hebrew is sar shalom, that is, sar of shalom. While the English “Prince of Peace” has a nice alliterative ring to it, there’s little support for translating sar as “prince,” and even “peace” for shalom is a bit misleading.

Sar

The Hebrew sar is generally someone in charge of something. For example, we find in Genesis (21:22, 21:32, etc.) that Phicol is in charge of Abimelech’s army; Phicol there is the sar of the army. Later in Genesis, Potiphar is sar of the tabachim (this is probably an expression, perhaps “chief steward”). There’s a sar of the jail (“jailkeeper”), of drink (“cupbearer”) and baked goods (“chief baker”).

In Exodus 2:14 the term is used generically when a Hebrew challenges Moses with the rhetorical question, “who made you sar and judge over us?” In Numbers 16:13, a verbal form of the noun is used to mean “rule over us.”
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January 22, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments